FIFTY-TWO

She was talking to herself more than she was talking to me.

“Twenty-two pounds. Dinner’s at four. I’d like the bird out of the oven by three, maybe a little after. Eighteen to twenty minutes a pound-that’s because it’s stuffed, otherwise it would be only fifteen. That means five hours, give or take, so I need to get this in the oven-oh my God!-in the next few minutes. Aaaagh.”

Holly Malone was kind of cute. She would be the darling kid in the sitcom-the one you really liked, the one with the charm. Pretty, but not the kind of drop-dead-beautiful that made me nervous. Like Gibbs.

I was enjoying watching her flit around her little linoleum-tiled kitchen searching for utensils and roasting pans and ingredients that it was apparent she hadn’t laid a hand on in months. Or longer. But she possessed enough enthusiasm for an entire cheerleading squad, and her positive energy was better for my heart than anything I’d run across recently.

I was also enjoying being in a kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, getting the opportunity to be a spectator at an event that I’d been privileged to witness almost every year of my life since I was old enough to remember. I was surrounded by tradition; the countertops in Holly’s kitchen were upholstered with celery and onions and broth and butter and parsley and dried bread crumbs and a big fat naked turkey, and for a moment all was right in my world.

I looked at the clock that hung on the wall by the door that led from the kitchen to the living room, which was where Carmen Reynoso was waiting while I was doing my best to bond with Holly. The clock read ten-fifty. I did some arithmetic, considered for a moment the consequences of keeping my mouth shut, and said, “Relax, Holly. Dinner won’t be until six-thirty or seven. Maybe later. You have all day.”

“What are you talking about?” she said playfully. She thought I was teasing. “Everyone’s coming shortly after two. Dinner’s at four, promptly. My sister’s husband Artie would have a fit if he thought his meal would be even a minute tardy.” Holly had a trace of an accent of some kind that caused her to elevate the last syllables of her words as though she really, really liked them. The accent was cute, too.

I was having a very good time.

Reluctantly, I explained the turkey dilemma. “Twenty-two pounds at twenty minutes a pound is exactly seven hours and twenty minutes of cooking time, not five hours give or take. That sounds like a long time to me, but what do I know about turkeys? If you stick it in the oven right this second-and you and I know that’s not going to happen-then that bird won’t be coming back out of the oven until almost six o’clock this evening.”

She froze and stared at me as though I had screamed at her not to move, she had a tarantula on her nose. I could tell she was using the interlude to check my facility with numbers.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh my God!”

“What can I do to help, Holly?” I asked. “Chop something?”

Her shoulders dropped. She put a devilish look on her face and said, “Can you go and arrest Artie for something or other? Throw him in the slammer for a while? That’d slow him down.”

Half an hour later the bird was finally in the oven, and Holly and I were sipping fresh coffee at her linoleum-topped, chrome-framed kitchen table.

“This is going to be the kids’ table later on,” she told me. “This and an old card table from the basement.”

“I like the kids’ table,” I said. “Conversation’s usually better.”

She sighed and looked at the clock. “I was a math major at Williams. I swear I was,” she said.

I assumed that Williams was one of those eastern colleges that I was supposed to recognize by reputation. I didn’t. I’d gone to St. Cloud State and didn’t hang a whole lot with kids who didn’t.

I said, “Thanksgiving meals never happen on time. It’s part of the whole tradition. Don’t worry. If Artie gives you any trouble about it, he’s a jerk. Dinner will be wonderful.”

“Artie is a jerk. I don’t know what the heck my sister was thinking. She has this thing for anal men.”

I saw my opening. “Don’t be so hard on her. We all make decisions in relationships that we’d like to do over. I know I’ve made a few. I bet you have, too.”

She was staring into her mug. “Yeah,” she said, “I have.” She stood, walked over to the oven, and peered in on the bird. She and I both knew it was just as pale as it had been ten minutes before. And she and I both knew that she was getting some distance from me. We were getting a little too close for Holly’s comfort.

I pulled the photo of Brian Miles from my pocket. “You know this guy?”

She took a serious look at it before she said no.

My first reaction was that I believed her. I reminded myself that that didn’t mean she was telling the truth.

“Sure? He hasn’t been around?”

“I’m sure. Who is he?”

“Not important.”

She moved some things around on the counter. Finally, she said, “This is where we talk about Sterling, isn’t it?”

“Stuffing’s made, turkey’s in the oven, the first round of dishes is done. Coffee’s hot. Guests won’t be here for hours. It’s probably as good a time as any.”

“I should check on my son.”

“He’s fine. Detective Reynoso loves kids.” Or she hates kids. Or she can take or leave kids. I didn’t know. All I knew was that she’d managed to keep one alive until the kid was in college.

“You’re sure?”

“I am.”

“Is Sterling dead? The papers say he’s dead.”

“I was down in Georgia a couple of days ago. They think he’s dead. Me? I’m not convinced.” I went into a long explanation about the Reverend Prior and the Wolf sisters, the precise order they all arrived at the bridge over the Ochlockonee during that terrible storm, and I even slid into a little digression about the turducken that had already been in the Wolf sisters’ oven for over half a day.

I could almost taste it right that second.

Holly was much more curious about the construction of the turducken than she was in the logistics involved in Sterling’s fall into the Ochlockonee River. At her behest I did my best to explain the precise way a creative butcher nested the birds together like a set of those weird little Russian dolls that fit inside one another.

“Artie wouldn’t like it,” she said. “All those meats in the same meal? He likes to keep his foods completely separate on his plate.” The thought of disappointing Artie made her smile.

“Do you know about the other women?” I asked. Enough about poultry, enough about Artie. If I was still around when Artie showed up, he and I were going to have a chat.

She gestured at the morning newspaper. “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe what I’ve been reading. It’s just-it just can’t be true. Not Sterling.” She’d been waiting for me to ask the question about Sterling and didn’t spare a second in answering it.

“You don’t believe it?”

She looked at me, which was good. Her eyes were tight with something; I wasn’t sure what. She said, “Sterling is… pretty, I mean-God, who am I kidding-he’s really gorgeous and… he’s… smooth. You know, he’s not the Sylvester Stallone macho-type guy, he’s more like a short-God, I probably shouldn’t say that. Oh, what the hell-he’s like a short version of George Clooney. Sterling’s really charming, not the kind of guy I usually meet through the-” She stopped herself.

“Yeah?”

She went on firmly. “He wouldn’t kill anybody. No, no. Sterling is just not that type of guy. I know men. I do.”

I whispered a prayer of gratitude for the opening. “So what type of guy is he, Holly?”

I’d been traveling for four days plus through I’d-lost-count-of-how-many-states hoping to get the answer to that question. And now here it was. I was about to hear what kind of guy Sterling Storey was, what kind of guy could cheat on a woman like Gibbs over and over again.

Holly’s phone rang. It was her sister, Artie’s wife.

“You got my message?” Holly said, stepping away from me across the kitchen. “Is Artie going crazy with the delay?” She raised a finger to warn me that she was going to need a minute.

I stood and poked my head into the living room. Carmen had Holly’s son in her lap. She was reading him Christmas stories. I recognized a funny little book that I always read to Simon over the holidays calledBialosky’s Christmas. Simon thought Bialosky was one terrific bear, which was something I never really understood.

Carmen’s storytelling style was full of melody, and she imbued each character with a distinct voice. She was making it sound as if one of Bialosky’s friends was from the barrio. Carmen was good. I listened for half a minute, but only with the periphery of my awareness. Front and center? I was replaying the last few moments with Holly.

Behind me I heard her place the phone receiver back on the cradle.

“Sorry,” she said. “My sister.”

Before I stepped back into the kitchen, I killed the power on my cell phone so we wouldn’t be disturbed, and I changed the weight of my voice, reducing it the way my mom used to reduce the gravy before bringing it to the table. The act was pure instinct, like a big cat flexing her muscles before she pounces. I was about to pounce.

My prey was a cute blond widow who was cooking Thanksgiving supper for her extended family.

“Sterling Storey’s not the kind of guy you usually meet through… what?” I asked Holly.

She took a step back, literally, and bumped against the stove. “I hoped you hadn’t heard that. I’ve been wishing I hadn’t said that.”

“Maybe. Or maybe you hoped I did. Regardless, here we are. I heard it. You said it.”

“I’m a widow,” she said.

“Got that. I’m sorry.”

“People talk. You know what it’s like. My… options are limited. In my personal life.”

“Are we talking about sex, Holly?” I managed to ask the question with a certain panache, as though I talked about sex with cute young widows all the time.

Yeah.

My question amused her. “Yes, Sam, we are indeed talking about sex. Hello.”

I said what, to me, felt obvious. “You’re a lovely girl, Holly. Bright, funny. I don’t see how your options are limited.” I didn’t say,“You could have any guy you might want, any guy at all.”I didn’t say,“A guy would be lucky to be with you. A guy like me would…”

I didn’t allow myself to finish the thought.

“Before he died, my husband and I had an… imaginative sex life. We enjoyed a variety…”

Holly turned away from me.

Holly wasn’t bashful about sex. That’s not why she turned away. She turned away because she instinctively knew I was bashful about sex.

I tried to focus.A variety of what?

“We were careful. Always careful, especially after Zach was born. We didn’t take unnecessary risks.”

At the moment she said that she was talking directly to the turkey. Unlike me the turkey didn’t blush.

“That’s good,” I replied. “You and your husband, what you did together in your private time is… was…”

“Our business. Yes. Is this important? I’m not really comfortable talking about all this with you.”

Neither am I. Trust me, neither am I.

“Your husband’s name was?”

“Mark.”

“Thank you. Detective Reynoso and I are trying to determine what kind of danger you might be in from Sterling Storey. How you know him and how you met him are important parts of that determination. We’d like to leave here today able to assure you that you’re safe.”

She considered my argument. She looked in her hand, pulled out a card, and held it up for me to see. “I don’t have to talk to you, though, do I? Legally, you don’t have any authority here, do you?”

The card she’d chosen from her imaginary hand was a good one. I acknowledged that she held it. I said, “Nope, I don’t.”

“But then,” she said, “you don’t have to be here at all, do you?”

“Nope, I certainly don’t. I’m a volunteer in this fire department.”

She turned back toward me. The fact that I was there on my own time and on my own dime carried a lot of weight. She said, “Who will know about this? I mean, if I decide to tell you?”

I sipped at some coffee. It was cold. “This is where I could lie to you and tell you nobody but us, me and Detective Reynoso, but the truth is I don’t know who’ll end up knowing. Secrets are like puppies. Once you let them out, they tend to be pretty hard to control.”

“South Bend’s a small town. Notre Dame’s a Catholic university. A very Catholic university. I’m a mom. Some of the things I do in my private life aren’t acceptable here. I have no illusions about that.”

“I understand,” I said. “I know about small towns and secrets. In case you’ve never been, Boulder is more small town than big city. I grew up in a much smaller town in Minnesota. So how did you meet him?”

Instantly, she entered a little time warp. I recognized it. It was a little Jules Verne moment where time stopped and she tried to decide whether to tell me the truth. Ten seconds later she exited the warp with what sounded to me like honest words. “I have personal ads on the Web. Adult personal ads. I try to meet men with… similar interests… who are traveling, you know, who are in town on business. Mostly I end up going to Chicago to…”

Part of me was grateful that she left the sentence unfinished, part of me was just the smallest bit curious about what happened when she went to Chicago. “But Sterling came here to South Bend?”

“Yes, he did. His work brought him here-brings him here. You know about that, don’t you? His work?”

“I do. You didn’t meet him through his job, though?”

“No, we met, if you can call it that, over the Internet. We never ran into each other on our jobs. Even after. My job concerns primarily women’s sports. I don’t deal much with the men’s teams.”

“See, I didn’t know any of that. You have a copy of the ad you run? May I take a look at it?”

“What?”

Holly had heard me just fine. Her exclamation was understandable, about what I would have expected had I asked if I could fish through her underwear drawer. I softened the request. “I’d like to know what exactly Sterling responded to. It will help me… understand him a little better.”

She exhaled, her eyes wide. She dropped her arms to her sides and spread her legs a couple of inches farther apart. “He responded to a revealing picture of an attractive woman who said she likes sex with strangers. It’s not that complicated, Detective. Getting people to respond to my ad wasn’t difficult-isn’t difficult. Finding someone I can feel safe with… that’s a whole different problem.”

I blushed. “How do you-”

“E-mail. I set up temporary Hotmail accounts, and then I e-mail back and forth with the guy until I’m comfortable. If I don’t get comfortable with him, I close the account and start all over with somebody else.”

I didn’t know what a Hotmail account was. Hell. I’d ask Simon when I talked to him later in the day. My kid would probably know. “How long did the process take with Sterling?”

Carmen chose that moment to step into the room. “Smells great in here. You guys making progress?”

“We’re doing great, Carmen. Maybe a few more minutes?” I said. The expression on my face was intended to shout “bad timing.”Real bad timing.

She backed out.

Holly said, “I don’t like her.”

“Yeah, well. She’s great with your kid. That’s good, right? You were saying how long it took to-”

“Not long.”

“So you met him… where?”

“On campus.”

“And you…?”

“Jesus, Detective. Do you really need to know? Really?”

I said yes. I didn’t feel yes, but I said yes. Some things you want to know even if you don’t want to know them.

This was one of those.

Holly stepped over next to me, lowered her mouth to my ear, and whispered what it was she’d done with Sterling Storey.

Maybe it was the moist heat of her breath, maybe it was what she told me, but I blushed all over again.

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